In Crisis-Wracked Greece, A Crime Wave Grips the Nation's Museums and Cultural Sites

In Crisis-Wracked Greece, A Crime Wave Grips the Nation's Museums and Cultural Sites
Thieves stole over 60 ancient artefacts from the Museum of the Olympic Games on February 17
(Courtesy RobW via flickr)

Today, Eurozone authorities agreed on a rescue package to save the debt-wracked Greece from meltdown. Yet it may be too late to stop another sort of disaster touched off by the Mediterranean nation's economic and social crisis: the wave of art thefts targeting its storied cultural sites. On Friday, the second major museum theft to hit Greece in two months came to light, after two masked gunman stole dozens of ancient artifacts from the small Museum of Ancient Olympia, located in southern Greece at the birthplace of the Olympic Games. As a mark of how grave the situation has become, culture minister Pavlos Yeroulanos immediately offered his resignation

Such incidents could have a major impact on Greece, since site tourism is one of the major industries. Yesterday, the Culture Ministry and the Citizen Protection Ministry released a joint statement with images of the stolen Olympic artifacts. They include a gold ring that was used as a seal, a vase from Rhodes, 13 ceramic lanters, 11 bronze wheels, and more than 30 animal statuettes.

The latest string of art thefts is a consequence of the severe cutbacks in cultural spending and museum security layoffs, according to many reports. “There are no funds for new guard hirings,” Yiannis Mavrikopoulos, head of the site's guards’ union, told the AP. “Many have been forced to take early retirement ahead of the new program of layoffs. We face terrible shortages.”

Last month, artworks by Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian, as well as a 16th-century sketch, were stolen from Greece’s National Gallery in Athens. The estimated $6.5 million swindle took place on one of the city’s busiest streets and was the first in the museum's 112-year history, according to an in-depth article in the Los Angeles Times on the spike in Greek art crime. Art antiquities lefts are already up 30 percent from last year.

Both recent crimes reportedly occurred when only one security officer was on duty. In the case of the Olympic Museum, thieves tied up the guard, a 48-year-old woman, while they looted the museum. The National Gallery theft, during which thieves tripped the alarm multiple times at different times to confuse security, took place during a three-day guard strike. "I understand the need for cutbacks, but please,” Dimos Kouzilos, the head of a special police unit investigating art and antiquities smuggling, told the Los Angles Times earlier this month after the National Gallery theft. “My house is better padlocked and protected.”

As it stands, approximately 1,900 government workers protect more than 15,000 museums, monuments, and archeological sites in Greece, 1,350 of which are full-time staff members. (That’s about 11 full-time guards per museum.) The rest, according to the LAT, are either contract employees hired during tourist season or government workers placed in the job after being laid off from another government position. The result, some say, is a slew of inexperienced guards with little to no knowledge of antiquities.

After the National Gallery incident, the culture ministry and museum officials launched an administrative investigation to see whether the theft may have been an inside job. Rising unemployment and crime rates suggest that more thefts may be on the horizon, and that they will be organized not by seasoned criminals or double agents, but rather by poverty-stricken amateurs. Last year, for example, two thieves arrested for trying to sell a stolen golden sword linked to the dynasty of Alexander the Great weren’t lifetime crooks — they were bouncers who had been recently fired from a Greek nightclub. 

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